A change in the open enrollment rules for Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D means you need to take action fast to prevent being saddled with a plan that no longer fits your needs.
The open enrollment period for 2012 will start Oct. 15 and end Dec. 7. That's a change from previous years, when open enrollment ran from Nov. 15 to Dec. 31.
In the past, many seniors were accustomed to waiting until year's end to make changes to their Medicare plans. This year, those who drag their feet will be out of luck.
"Almost to a T, everyone I meet with is confused about Medicare, and very few are aware of the deadline being moved up," says Stuart Millard, a Certified Financial Planner who heads Senior Insurance Solutions in Scituate, Mass.
That jibes with a study by done by UnitedHealthcare and the National Council on Aging, which found less than 10 percent of the 1,500 seniors surveyed knew when the new enrollment period began, and only 3 percent were aware of the end date.
And consumers do indeed wait until the last minute to enroll. At SCAN Health Plan, many customers wait until the last minute to enroll, says David Milligan, vice president of sales.
"We typically get a very large portion of our enrollment the last two weeks of December," Milligan says.
Following are four questions and answers surrounding this year's enrollment period change and how it may affect your health insurance coverage.
No. Even if you love your current Medicare Advantage health plan or Part D prescription drug plan, experts say you still should review them each year, as the plans can change annually.
If you haven't already received your annual notice of changes, your plan should be sending it out soon, says Sarah Bearce, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare.
Don't just toss the notice on the kitchen counter with the intention of picking it up again in a few weeks. Instead, review it carefully to see if there have been any changes to the plan, including to premiums and copayments.
Evaluate any changes to your health care needs or finances. You might require special services you didn't need in the past. Are they covered in your current plan? Ask yourself: "Does this plan still work for me?"
You also may have a plan that has changed because a bigger carrier has acquired the carrier you were previously with, Milligan says.
"You may have been put into a plan through an acquisition that you don't want to be in," he says.
Find out if your prescription medications are still covered by your plan. You can go to U.S. government's Medicare site and enter your ZIP code to find out what plans cover the drugs you use, and the price. You can also use the site to check out the range of plans available in your area.
Missing the cutoff date for changing your health plan isn't necessarily the end of the world. People who miss the deadline will either be stuck with the plan they have, or can go back to traditional Medicare, says Tony Colistra, vice president of market growth and development for Care Improvement Plus.
"It's not as though they'll be left out in the cold," Colistra says.
If you decide your plan no longer meets your needs, you have a Jan. 1 to Feb. 14 window to go back to original Medicare.
It's not unusual for plans to close down, says Anthony Tramontano, an Aetna spokesperson. If that happens, your current plan must provide you with a list of the other plans available in your area.
In such situations, you'll have a longer time – until Feb. 29 – to review your options and make a decision. If you make a selection during the open enrollment period, your new plan will take effect Jan. 1.
If you make a decision after the Dec. 31 deadline, your new plan will go into effect the following month. So if you make your choice Jan. 12, you'll join your new plan on Feb. 1.
Navigating the Medicare maze is no easy task.
"Just because something is good for your friend doesn't mean it's going to be good for you," Tramontano says.
Milligan recommends involving family members and trusted advisers in your decision.
Another option is to check with groups like your local branch of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. The group can help you sort out your options without making any recommendations, Milligan says.
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